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Congressional Black Caucus frustrated with jobs legislation

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; A17

As Congress focused almost exclusively on health care late last year, the Congressional Black Caucus loudly complained that rising unemployment among African Americans was not getting enough attention. To express that frustration, one bloc in the 43-member group briefly withheld its votes for a key bill that Democrats were trying to pass. The caucus released a list of demands to include in the legislation that would create jobs in low-income areas.

But as the "jobs bill" winds its way through Congress, civil rights groups say the various versions of the legislation are not directly addressing the problems the caucus wanted to fix. When the House passed its $154 billion version in December, it did not include a request from black lawmakers that 10 percent of the money in each of its provisions go to communities where at least 20 percent of the people are low-income. The version of the package that overcame a filibuster threat in the Senate on Monday does not include the 10 percent formula, nor does it include the additional funding for youth employment programs that is in the House bill.

"The final legislation must provide tools for ensuring that stimulus funds go to the places and people most in need," a coalition of groups that included the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote to congressional leaders on Friday.

The black caucus has largely remained quiet as the Senate considered the bill, although caucus aides noted that the group's chairman, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), met with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to encourage including the caucus's priorities. In a statement Monday, Lee said, "The CBC has advocated for a diverse set of solutions to meet the needs of the chronically unemployed."

Some civil rights advocates outside Congress say the caucus is wary of too publicly declaring itself opposed to a bill that doesn't include its desired provisions, not wanting to create another dispute between lawmakers and the nation's first black president.

When the caucus called last year for specific job provisions for blacks and others in low-income communities, President Obama publicly distanced himself from the idea, saying the federal government must focus on programs that will aid all instead of targeting specific groups.

"The Congressional Black Caucus before pushed pretty hard, then they sort of yielded after the president pushed back," said John Powell, executive director of Ohio State University's Kirwan Institute, which studies how African Americans have been affected by the downturn. "In its current state, there's not a whole lot in there that will have a positive impact on hard-hit communities that have high unemployment," he said of the jobs bill.

Infighting

The black caucus returns to Capitol Hill from last week's recess facing criticism from a liberal ally. The Web-based group ColorOfChange.org, which Van Jones (later to serve a brief stint in the Obama White House) helped found in 2005 to organize on issues that affect African Americans, is circulating a survey asking its more than 600,000 members for their views on the caucus.

The survey, prompted by a New York Times report that the caucus's foundation takes in millions from corporate donors and spends much of that money to organize conferences and events instead of on its scholarship fund and other more altruistic aims, asks ColorOfChange.org members whether they agree or disagree with a series of pointed statements.

One example: "The Congressional Black Caucus can't have it both ways, and we should call on members of the CBC to either vastly scale back their relationship to corporate donors or stop claiming that they're upholding the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement."

James Rucker, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, said, "The kind of moral authority they have can't be for sale."

Rucker said the response shows that the liberal activists want to challenge the black caucus's foundation on its relationship with corporate donors, although ColorOfChange.org has not yet decided what form their protest will take.

A spokesman for the caucus did not reply to a request for a comment on the survey.

The agenda

On Capitol Hill, Democrats in the House this week are expected to approve stripping the antitrust exemption that health-care companies have long had.

The exemption limits how much the federal government can investigate insurance companies for price fixing and other violations, giving that authority instead to states, most of whom already have laws banning anti-competitive activities by insurance companies.

The vote seems mostly symbolic: The Congressional Budget Office estimated last fall that the effects of the provision would be "quite small" in reducing the cost of health insurance premiums, and the measure may not even pass in the Senate, where some lawmakers, such as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), have said they have concerns about it.

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